Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)
“M.G.M.s Great Romance Excitingly photographed in Ansco Color.”
Director: John Sturges
Cast: William Holden, Eleanor Parker, John Forsythe
Synopsis: A ruthless Union captain is renowned throughout his prison fort as the toughest soldier in the business, capable of capturing every escaped convict under his supervision.
Escape from Fort Bravo opens with rugged Union officer Captain Roper (William Holden) half-dragging an escaped Confederate soldier through the desert back to the eponymous fort at the end of a rope, leaving us in no doubt as to just what a hard-ass he is. His methods aren’t appreciated by the prisoners, and even some of his own officers, such as the somewhat idealistic Lt. Beecher (Richard Anderson), disapprove, but he isn’t too bothered about what they think. He has a code of conduct to which he strictly adheres, and the fact that the circumstances under which his prisoner was re-captured don’t measure up to his code justifies to him his method of returning that prisoner to camp. He’s also a little unhappy about the fact that he was forced to roam a country filled with unruly Mescalero Indians.
Roper’s hard-bitten demeanour is unexpectedly undermined by the womanly wiles of Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), a friend of Lt. Beecher’s fiancee who just happens to be the squeeze of Captain John Marsh (John Forsythe), an imprisoned Southern officer. Exactly how she’s managed to keep their relationship a secret from the world in general is never revealed, but her love for him is clearly so strong that she’s prepared to venture into the heart of the enemy (both literally and figuratively) in order to aid his escape. Carla is certainly a little forward for a 19th Century woman, practically throwing herself at him: ‘I’m a little trouble,’ she warns, ‘but you look like you could handle a little trouble,’ and she practices a little gentle emasculation by offering to walk him home not once but twice. Roper falls for her act, and is so distracted by her that he fails to see the escape plot for Marsh and three of his men that she is orchestrating.
Once the escape takes place, the mechanics of the plot require that the relationship between Roper and Carla, and the deceit upon which it is built, takes a back seat to a more straightforward encounter with the marauding Mescalero Indians which requires the warring factions to work together to survive. There’s no enlightened view of the American natives here: the Indians are faceless bad guys with no reason given for their indiscriminate slaughtering of whites. Having pinned down Roper, Carla and a group of Union soldiers and Confederate escapees in a relatively exposed area, the Indians then proceed to providing target practice by riding past on their horses, and then fire off shots as they circle their quarry thereby risking accidentally shooting one another. It’s a shame that an otherwise relatively intelligent and absorbing Western, is spoiled by the typical stupidity of Hollywood Indians. Only their tactic of placing spears around the besieged whites to provide markers for their bowmen showed any sense of warfare tactics or intelligence.
Escape from Fort Bravo was directed by John Sturges, a director who made many Westerns (he’d go on to direct Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960)) and who was clearly comfortable with the genre. His assured hand is evident here, and he’s supported by an experienced and talented cast. Holden embodies hard-bitten cynicism, while Parker makes an alluring femme fatale who becomes torn between Roper and Marsh. Escape from Fort Bravo entertains without really making any lasting impression.
(Reviewed 27th July 2012)